Professor Partners with Students in Nanotechnology Research

Physics research team explores ways to advance technology

Focusing on materials and properties over 1000 times or smaller than the human hair sounds like an extremely difficult and an almost impossible task. Yet Dr. Rama Balasubramanian and her students make this research possible in their laboratory experiments. Dr. Bala, as her students call her, is conducting research on the growth of carbon-nanotubes that aims toward reducing the size of technology by designing nano-sensors, nano-devices and thin-films.

The science of nanotechnology deals with fundamental studies of materials and devices on the scale of a few billionths of a meter. Nanomaterials have fascinating properties that may one day provide the means for better data storage, smaller electronic components, better efficiency in hydrogen fuel cell absorption and even effective cancer destroying methods or self-repairing devices.

"The properties of these nano-materials are governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, and therefore the sheer reduction in size, enhances the electronic and electrical properties. Furthermore, the power requirement for running these devices is minimized creating a win-win situation," Balasubramanian says.
Dr. Balasubramanian's research focuses on growing carbon nanotubes and using them in a variety of applications. Carbon nanotubes are rolls of carbon atoms arranged in a tubular shape with diameters approximately one nanometer. These nanotubes have electrical, electronic and mechanical properties that enable them to be used in various applications such as high strength and lightweight materials, as well as wires in miniaturized nano-electronic circuits.

The nanotubes grow in specific geometries depending on the nature of the starting material. Dr. Balasubramanian's research group has provided evidence for the first time that the length of the nanotube is intrinsically tied to the nature of starting catalyst. Because these nanomaterials are 1000 times smaller than the human hair, it is very challenging to work with these materials. Visualizing and characterizing these materials require very-high resolution optical and spectroscopic tools.
"Testing the nanotubes to see how to refine the process, to figure out the exact number of tubes and the desired length is all part of the research," Balasubramanian says.

Dr. Balasubramanian has supervised student projects on nanomaterials for Connie Baker '06 and Jake Bennett '08. She also helped Jordan Kline '07 with research on the nature of nanophase iron oxides found in the soil of Planet Mars. NASA's twin rovers that are currently working as robotic geologists on Mars provided the Mössbauer Spectroscopy data for this research.

"Working in the lab with Dr. Bala has helped me develop research skills and knowledge that will help me in my educational and career paths," Bennett says. "This research project has been fun, but it has also enabled me to improve my skills in the field and gain valuable comprehension of materials science."
Dr. Balasubramanian feels that research information is shared with her students more effectively in the small school environment.

"Sharing knowledge with my students and the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions about the finer aspects of the research are very exciting for me," Balasubramanian says, "If I can help pique my students' interest in research and scientific careers, I feel that I have done my job as a professor to promote an extended education."

Shena Sanchez

About the Author

Shena Sanchez is a 2008 graduate in English from Virginia. She was a student writer in the College's PR office and was very active on campus in several organizations, including Alpha Sigma Alpha and InterVaristy Christian Fellowship.